Former President Barack Obama, in one of his biggest speeches since leaving the White House, warned Tuesday against the rise of “strongman politics” and criticized the nationalist style of politics embraced by President Trump.
Without ever mentioning Mr. Trump by name, Mr. Obama told an audience in South Africa marking the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth that the world is living in “strange and uncertain times.”
“Each day’s news cycle bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines,” Mr. Obama said in Johannesburg. “Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained — the form of it — but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”
He also seemed to refer to his successor by criticizing renewed efforts at restricting immigration.
“In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism,” Mr. Obama said.
“A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear and that kind of politics is now on the move,” the former president said. “It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago. I’m not being alarmist. I’m simply stating the facts. Look around.”
The audience of about 15,000 warmly received Mr. Obama and interrupted his speech frequently with applause, as when he decried “right-wing billionaires” while openly promoting a liberal push for “universal income.”
Mr. Obama criticized “populist movements, cynically funded by right-wing billionaires worried about their own interests.”
“These movements tapped the unease that was felt by so many people who live outside of urban course,” he said. “That their social status and privileges were eroding … threatened by outsiders, those who don’t look like them or sound like them.”
It was a relatively rare public appearance for Mr. Obama, who left the presidency in January 2017 and is devoting much of his time in the U.S. to a redistricting program with former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
His speech came a day after Mr. Trump held a summit and press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Mr. Trump didn’t criticize the Russian publicly for meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Mr. Obama didn’t address the furor in his remarks.
Nearly two years after leaving office, Mr. Obama would prefer to give back some of Mr. Trump’s tax cuts because, he said, “there’s only so many nice trips you can take.”
“Right now I’m actually surprised by how much money I got,” Mr. Obama said. “Let me tell you something, I don’t have half as much as most of these folks who are in the [top] tenth … There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it’s enough.”
Although he didn’t mention last year’s tax cuts specifically, Mr. Obama called for the wealthy to pay more around the world in “some form of progressive taxation, “so that rich people are still rich, but they’re giving a little bit back to make sure that everybody else has something to pay for universal health care and retirement security and invest in infrastructure and scientific research.”
“You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say ‘let me help out a little,'” Mr. Obama said. “Let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat … let me help them out, I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s okay. I can afford it.”
He criticized those who oppose the government taking a larger share of their wealth in taxes.
“It shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more, instead of saying ‘I’ve got so much, who can I help?'” Mr. Obama said. “How can I give more and more and more? That’s ambition. That’s impact. That’s influence. What an amazing gift, to be able to help people, and not just yourself.”
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